The oldest of North Carolina’s players were in fifth grade in 2005. They know the stories, that’s for sure, just as they know all the stories about the 2009 team, especially the one about how that team finally figured out how to play defense. They hear that one a lot, since it’s particularly relevant to their experience.
There aren’t many comparisons to be drawn when it comes to talent. But with the Tar Heels two wins away from joining those two teams as national champions, there is one common thread that unites the teams. The 2005 and 2009 national titles came at the end of long, difficult journeys. This team is nearing the end of a long journey of its own.
The dominating big men – Sean May, Tyler Hansbrough and Brice Johnson – are the primary personnel similarity. Beyond that, the point guards are very different, with Joel Berry’s shooting and grittiness a counterpoint to the raw speed of Raymond Felton and Ty Lawson. This year’s team lacks the elite outside shooting of a Rashad McCants or Wayne Ellington, and yet it’s deeper in some ways, especially in the post.
Both 2005 and 2009 were loaded with first-round draft picks; this team does not appear to be. What they share, other than their coach, is their continuity and sense of destiny.
“I think they have pretty much a single-minded purpose,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “Perhaps that attitude that ’05 and ’09 had.”
That is not a coincidence. Of the three teams, only this one starts anyone who isn’t a junior or senior – sophomores Berry and Justin Jackson.
The 2005 team was built from the wreckage of the Matt Doherty era, and the players had the sense of togetherness that came from enduring those lows. The seniors had survived an 8-20 season, the juniors and seniors a 19-16 season that ended in the NIT. Jawad Williams and Jackie Manuel and Melvin Scott had it far rougher than Paige or Johnson or James.
“Just like us, this team is built primarily on juniors and seniors,” said May, a junior in 2005, now a part of the North Carolina basketball staff. “You’ve been in the moment, you recognize the moment, you’ve been in big games, hopefully you can be able to tap into some of that.”
The 2009 team never struggled like that, but it carried its own burdens of unfulfilled destiny and unrestrained frustration – upset by George Mason as freshmen, falling to Georgetown in a regional final as sophomores and embarrassed by Kansas in the Final Four as juniors before breaking through as seniors.
“Obviously we don’t quite have the talent they had, it’s fair to say,” North Carolina guard Marcus Paige said. “They had a couple, three or four first-round picks and the best player ever in college in Tyler Hansbrough if you ask coach Williams.
“We have a dominant big man and we have Joel playing great basketball at point guard. And our offense is No. 1 in the country just like theirs. And our defense got better throughout the year just as theirs did. They also won all their games by double digits and we’ve been able to do that so far. I’d say there’s some parallels.”
The 2016 team has endured four years of relative struggle, by North Carolina standards, that have been building toward this moment.
At some point before tipoff Saturday, May will address the team, at Williams’ request. There are parts of his 2005 experience he hasn’t shared with anyone, even his wife. Until now, when he will share them with these players trying to follow in his footsteps.
“I’ve always felt like there was never any need,” May said. “We did it, it was fun, and I like to keep those memories personal and to myself. So I’m excited about it. I think they’ll get a kick out of some of this stuff, because a lot of it, if they make it to Monday, they’ll experience the same things.”
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock